Geology And Geophysics

Historic Eruptions of Mount Vesuvius

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The shadow of Vesuvius looms over the city of Naples, Italy, like a brooding giant. Ah, yes, Naples-city of opposites; beauty and squalor, opera and street noise, pizza and squid, sun and volcano. Mt Vesuvius, which gives the Bay of Naples such a beautiful backdrop is one of two active volcanoes on the continent of Europe. (The other is Mt. Etna on the island of Sicily.) Scientists estimate that Vesuvius has been active for 17,000 years with at least eight major eruptions. (

The first written record of an eruption documented the one that occurred in AD 79. This was the worst one identified for Vesuvius. When the eruption occurred, nearby Rome was the capitol of an empire that covered much of the known world. The Bay of Naples was a natural harbor and port for the empire. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were well-populated cities near the foot of the mountain. Therefore an estimated 16,000 died as lava, mud and ashes obliterated those two cities and possibly several small villages. ( There are several eye-witness accounts of the event. Pliny the Younger, a Roman historian, wrote the most widely circulated account. He observed the eruption from Cape Misenum, about 20 km away. He wrote of a tree-shaped cloud of ash, day turning into night, falling rocks and pumice and an overwhelming odor of sulfur. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, Admiral of the Roman fleet based on the Cape, commanded one of the ships sent to rescue survivors died during the action, apparently overcome by the toxic fumes. Another historian, Galenus reported in 172 AD that the mountain was “still burning.” (

In addition to reading the historical accounts of that infamous day, today's tourists can also visit the uncovered ruins of both of the destroyed cities which were buried in ash and preserved undisturbed for centuries. People who died were enshrouded in the ash and their bodies decomposed leaving hollows in the hardened residue. Historians and archeologists were able to reconstruct perfect forms and positions of those bodies by making plaster casts of the hollows.

Also preserved were the beautiful painted friezes on the walls of homes and courtyards, mosaic designs in gardens and paths and the objects, utensils and equipment used in daily life. Area museums and opened areas of both Pompeii and Herculaneum offer wonderful insights of what life was like at the time of the eruption. 

Over 50 more eruptions have been recorded since AD 79, though none so devastating. Vesuvius continued to erupt about every 100 years until 1037. Following that, there was no activity for 600 years. (

In December 1631, citizens of the area experienced several significant earth tremors, but assumed they were “normal” earthquake activity. Thinking that Vesuvius was dormant, they were unprepared for the intense eruption which collapsed the cone of the mountain sent lava flowing toward the sea and significantly changed its appearance. More than 4,000 deaths resulted from that explosion. Ironically, it was during the clean-up and restorations following that eruption that the ruins of Pompeii were discovered. (

Between 1631 and 1906 Vesuvius continued to be active with eruptions or effusions occurring every four to thirty years, further changing the contours of the mountain. Lava flows affected several towns in the area

The 1906 eruption was classified effusive-explosive. Over 100 people died in the village of T. Annunziata. Another of the same classification in 1921 killed an unstated number in Terzignio. (

The last eruption of Vesuvius happened in 1944, interrupting the Allied invasion of Italy in World War II. Volcanic ash destroyed planes and created the necessity of forced evacuations. 

The beautiful mountain is quiet for now and the countryside is serene. Citizens of Naples and the surrounding area continue their daily lives and tourists continue to visit the ruins left by the first recorded eruption. Everyone knows they live and move on a time-bomb. No one, however, knows what tomorrow or next year will bring to the sleeping giant called Vesuvius.

More about this author: Martha Leonard

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